As part of our review of the 2016-17 Chelsea Loan Report season, we’re focusing on ten of the 44 players who embarked upon temporary moves away from Stamford Bridge. The ten players have been selected as being amongst the most interesting of the group; be it for their proximity to the first-team squad under Antonio Conte, for the league they’re playing in, the progress they’ve made at a tender age, or simply because their situation warrants closer inspection, we’ll take a look at the year just gone, review the footage in depth, and take a moment to ponder what the future holds.
Today’s focus is on Lewis Baker.
– 39 assists, 15 goals at Vitesse Arnhem
What does he do well?
After spending 2015-16 in Arnhem, the expectations were raised for Baker, as he returned to the Gelredome for a second season. He needed to become a leader, an effective attacking force, and one of the best midfielders in the Eredivisie.
Fifteen goals, and a significant role in the club winning the first major honour of their 125-year existence later, and we can safely say he struck the right notes. Displaying all the hallmarks that made him a standout in the Chelsea academy, he focused in on the cup in particular with a laser focus, scoring a competition-high five goals en route to lifting the trophy in Rotterdam in late April.
A change of formation under new manager Henk Fraser freed him up to make more of an impact. Under former boss Peter Bosz and then his replacement Robert Maas, he was deployed as the fulcrum of a flexible 4-2-3-1 formation, operating deep and orchestrating the play in much the same way as he did in a blue shirt. When Fraser came in, however, he utilised a very Dutch 4-3-3 setup in which Baker was the ‘number eight’, the midfielder charged with playing a box-to-box role and linking with the wide players in an effort to impact the game more in the final third.
It set him up to be the sort of leader they needed in a young squad that wasn’t particularly used to winning. Having scored the majority of his goals in ’14-15 from set pieces, he began to make more of a regular impact on the scoresheet from open play, without compromising his dead-ball expertise. Converting four direct free-kicks proved just as much. His natural two-footedness makes him a hard player to contain, as he can produce going in either direction, whilst he’s extremely comfortable in taking the pressure off the rest of his team-mates and managing the tempo of the game to their advantage.
Where does he have room for improvement?
He has to do all of the above at a higher standard of football. Prior to his two-year Dutch sojourn, he’d spent a failed month at Sheffield Wednesday, followed by a useful cameo helping MK Dons to promotion. If we broadly establish that the Dutch league is somewhere around the top end of the Championship in terms of quality, he’s still a couple of really big steps away from proving he can help Chelsea.
Despite his increased return in goals and assists, there were large spells where he almost disappeared from matches – not uncommon for young players, and not entirely surprising when considering the quality of his team-mates – and it’s instructive to consider that he’s a much more regular influence on the England Under-21s, where he and fellow Blues youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek have been arguably their star players for this two-year cycle. Playing for Chelsea comes with the highest of demands and he’ll have to demonstrate to them that he can continue to score whilst making continued improvements to the defensive side of his game too.
How does he fit into this Chelsea team?
This is amongst the most commonly-asked questions about Baker; some think he’s good enough to play in the midfield two in the 3-4-3, others will only consider him amongst the front three. Perhaps the best comparison, though, is to Cesc Fabregas; another wonderfully-gifted midfield schemer who has struggled to find a home under Antonio Conte, and often needs the formation changing to 3-5-2 to accommodate him.
They share a reasonably similar profile too; neither are particularly quick or strong but make up for any physical shortcomings with their footballing intelligence and a technical commitment to their craft. The difference, of course, is that Fabregas is one of the greatest creators of his generation, and managed to put together a hugely impressive statistical output in a 2016-17 season in which he wasn’t a regular feature.
The Spaniard has two years remaining on his contract and, although he doesn’t appear to be keen on exploring his options at this stage, Chelsea’s policy towards players over the age of 30 has been clear for some time now. They could consider Baker to be his long-term protégé and eventual replacement, bringing him into the squad to learn under the master before looking towards him as a like-for-like replacement.
What are his prospects for 2017-18?
If they are to do that though, it would be best for him to spend a year getting regular Premier League football under his belt next season. He needs that challenge now; anything less than that (or an equivalent move to Spain or Germany) would simply be moving sideways after his departure from Vitesse, and we’d be no closer to finding out whether he has a future at Chelsea. The short-term signs are promising as he’s expected to be a part of the first-team’s pre-season touring party, but the simple numbers in midfield – and Fabregas’ continued presence – mean he’s not going to get the football he needs in all likelihood, and should look for that elsewhere in the next twelve months.